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Similarities to ‘our Seneca’

01 February 2011

Cally Hammond finds plenty to compare in Christians and Stoics


Roman Christianity and Roman Stoicism: A comparative study of ancient morality
Runar M. Thorsteinsson

OUP £65
Church Times Bookshop £58.50

THERE is comparatively little scholarly overlap between early Christianity and the world of the Greeks and Romans. This is despite some glaring evidence of parallels — St John’s doctrine of the Logos (divine Word), for example; or Paul’s use of the Stoic metaphor of parts of the body for the social unity of the Church.

It has long been recognised that the so-called Messianic Eclogue by the Roman poet Virgil (written c.40 BC: it heralds the return of a Virgin and the birth of a miraculous baby) owes its origin to the com­mon currency of prophecies circulating round the ancient Mediterranean. Yet the unnatural separation is perpetuated by the division of Classical languages on the one hand, semitic on the other, each with its own university faculty.

This book steps across that divide, urging that scholars do fuller justice to Stoic materials as parallels for Christian ethics and morality. In particular, it emphasises the need to use Stoic texts broadly contempor­aneous with the New Testament. It does not attempt a comprehensive comparison, but instead takes ancient Rome as its focus: the centre of the empire, a unique metropolis, a melting-pot of languages, cultures, religions, and ideas.

For evidence of Stoicism, the author uses the younger Seneca (tutor to the emperor Nero), Mus­onius Rufus (who survived the reign of Nero, unlike Seneca), and Epic­tetus (a former slave of Musonius). For Christianity, he draws on Romans, 1 Peter, and the sub-apostolic 1 Clement. Thor­steins­­son discovers clear parallels in their ethical views. The only essential difference is that Christian­ity focuses on the fellow­ship of faith rather than on universal humanity.

In the time of the early apolo­gists, much Christian energy was devoted to discovering affinities between Christianity and some Greek philosophies. While Cynicism and Epicureanism held little appeal, Stoicism, on the other hand, was embraced with some enthusiasm: Thorsteinsson quotes Tertullian referring to “our Seneca”, as does Jerome centuries later.

What the Christians must have found especially appealing was the Stoic emphasis on human beings as social creatures with a common good, whose task was to live well together, encouraging love for humankind. If the Stoic principle that philosophy was a good for all people did not undercut its social élitism in practice, well, Chris-tianity has claimed similar prin­ciples with­out practising them either.

There are differences, too, of course — plenty of them — be­tween the two ethical systems and the theologies underlying them. But when Epictetus encourages his readers to praise God continually, or tells them how to pray, his words could be echoed without difficulty by Christians then and now:

Look to God alone, be specially devoted to him only, and consecrated to his commands.

Call upon God to help you and stand by your side.

Pray constantly, with your whole heart.

The Revd Dr Cally Hammond is Dean of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge.

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